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Sonoma County health officer charged with DUI last year and pleaded to lesser charge, records show

As the delta variant was quickly spreading across Sonoma County last summer, Dr. Sundari Mase — the county’s health officer who had led the local battle against COVID-19 — was convicted of misdemeanor reckless driving with alcohol involved after pleading no contest to the offense, according to court records reviewed by The Press Democrat.

The July 23, 2021, conviction stemmed from a Dec. 2, 2020, arrest in Alameda County on suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol with a prior offense. Mase had previously been arrested in San Diego on suspicion of DUI on May 20, 2014, public documents show.

Details of the San Diego case were unavailable. A court official there said Friday the misdemeanor case had been dismissed and expunged in 2016. However, the 2020 case contains references to it.

At the time of her arrest 14 months ago, Sonoma County remained stuck in the most restrictive tier of the state’s reopening plan, preventing businesses and their customers from joining the resumption of public activity that was occurring in other parts of the Bay Area.

Mase, 55, initially faced two separate counts related to the December 2020 arrest: a misdemeanor charge of driving under the influence of alcohol with a prior offense; and driving with a blood-alcohol level above .08 percent, the legal limit in California, with a prior offense.

She had a blood alcohol level of 0.14, according to court documents. Mase pleaded not guilty to both counts.

The Alameda County Superior Court records show Mase later pleaded no contest to a lesser charge of reckless driving with alcohol involved.

She was given a year’s probation, which ends July 23, 2022, and fined $530. Mase also was ordered to complete a six-month DUI course; not to drive unless licensed and insured; not to drive “with any measurable amount of alcohol” in her system; and not to refuse a chemical test if asked to do so by a peace officer.

Court records show Mase enrolled in the DUI course in August as ordered.

Mase, an infectious disease expert who previously worked for both the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, has been the county’s chief medical officer after being appointed by the Board of Supervisors to the vacated post in the first days of the pandemic.

Late Friday, Mase issued an apology via email in response to Press Democrat questions about her conviction.

“On Dec. 2, 2020, I made a very serious mistake,” she wrote. “After socializing with a friend after work hours, I misjudged my sobriety and got behind the wheel of my car. On my way home, I was pulled over and arrested, ultimately resulting in a ‘wet reckless’ conviction.“

In California, “wet reckless” is the informal description of a DUI-related plea bargain in which the suspect pleads guilty or no contest to the lesser crime of reckless driving with alcohol.

In her statement, Mase said her actions were “a terrible lapse of judgment on my part, and I deeply regret that this occurred. I have apologized to my family and co-workers, and I want to extend my regrets to the community as well and ask for your forgiveness.”

Key county officials reached Friday afternoon said they were not aware of the matter.

Tina Rivera, the county’s newly named health services director and Mase’s supervisor, said it could undermine Mase’s credibility and derail the county’s efforts to combat the pandemic.

“I’m just really shocked and disappointed,” Rivera said.

Rivera has been serving as interim director for the past nine months. Her predecessor, Barbie Robinson, was the department’s chair at the time of Mase’s arrest and when initial charges were filed in April 2021.

An emotional Rivera, tearing up at one point, referred to Mase’s arrest as “serious.”

“It certainly impacts not only her personal integrity and credibility, but it then negatively impacts our department and county,” she said.

“Something like this truly gives fuel to advocates who stand against these mandates, stand against vaccines, things of that nature,” she said. “This type of news just really negatively impacts the good work that has been done within this county.”

Board of Supervisors Chair James Gore said he knew nothing of Mase’s arrest and conviction. But in a text message, he said he was “committed to following up with (the county’s human resources staff) to address this appropriately.”

However, the county’s top lawyer, County Counsel Robert Pittman, said Mase was under no obligation to report the incident to county officials.

“It occurred off work hours and is unrelated to her job functions," Pittman said in an email. "Nonetheless, Dr. Mase voluntarily disclosed the incident to her supervisor at the time."

According to a CHP officer’s summary contained in court documents, Mase was stopped in Oakland just after midnight on Dec. 2, 2020. CHP officers said they witnessed Mase driving erratically while westbound on Interstate 80 in Oakland.

They followed her as she transitioned to the eastbound lanes of Interstate 580 and observed her veering over lane lines several times.

Records show CHP officers said Mase “nearly collided with another vehicle” on Interstate 580, while changing lanes into the slow lane. Officers attempted an enforcement stop with red and blue lights and the car’s PA system, but Mase did not stop.

They said they had to instruct Mase several times to exit the freeway, according to the CHP summary.

Mase parked her car at Martin Luther King Way and 52nd Street in Oakland. The CHP officer said he approached Mase’s vehicle from the passenger side and told her the reason she was stopped.

The officer said he could “smell the odor of an alcoholic beverage” emitting from Mase’s car and her eyes were “red and watery,” the summary states.

CHP officers gave Mase several field sobriety tests and said she “did not complete the test as explained or demonstrated,” the court documents show.

Mase was placed under arrest at 12:10 a.m. Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020, according to the CHP’s account.

About 15 hours later, at 3:30 p.m. Mase appeared in a COVID-19 community briefing, which at the time were frequently broadcast digitally via Zoom.

County officials that day reported the number of new daily COVID-19 cases had spiked to a single-day high of 343, approaching double the previous record of 197 set back in mid-August 2020.

Infections were beginning to increase into what became a deadly winter surge that killed 123 local residents between mid-December 2020 to mid-February 2021.

During the briefing, Mase spoke of the county’s latest COVID-19 statistics, discussed the status of the county’s fight against the virus, and talked about how local COVID-19 testing was ramping up.

She made no mention of the arrest.

As health officer, Mase is Sonoma County’s top physician, and throughout the pandemic has been responsible for issuing countywide health orders. She’s received both glowing praise and harsh criticism for COVID-19 policies, including vaccine mandates; business restrictions; public masking rules; testing procedures and protocols; and bans on public gatherings.

While many of the local pandemic restrictions were actually dictated by state health officials, Mase, as the prominent leader of local public health policy, often received the brunt of the backlash.

Some of Mase’s critics questioned the level of restrictions and their impact on the local economy and daily activities. But there was also an undercurrent of hostility that directly referenced her race and ethnicity. Mase’s father, a Ph.D, in organic chemistry, came to the United States from India in the mid-1960s.

County supervisors in recent months said they’ve noticed an increase in “personal threats” against some top county employees, including Mase and other public health staff.

In November 2021, Supervisor Lynda Hopkins said the county had to take “security precautions to protect leaders of color within county government.” Hopkins called the need to provide security “very chilling.”

Sonoma County and California — as well as cities, counties and states nationwide — have begun ramping down pandemic mandates, as new daily cases of COVID-19 continue to decline since the winter surge.

On Feb. 11, Mase ended a local ban on large gatherings, and this week, she aligned the county with state rules that loosened indoor masking rules.

Mase lives in the East Bay community of Orinda with her husband, the appellate lawyer Gregory A. Mase. She joined Sonoma County as health officer in March 2020, just as the COVID-19 pandemic sent the county into a public health emergency.

Mase earned her medical degree from UC San Francisco in 1993. She worked 18 years as a tuberculosis expert for three agencies: California's Department of Health Services, the CDC in Atlanta, and the WHO.

You can reach Staff Writers Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com; Staff Writer Emma Murphy 707-521-5228 or emma.murphy@pressdemocrat.com; and Staff Writer Ethan Varian at 707-521-5412 or ethan.varian@pressdemocrat.com.

Emma Murphy

County government, politics reporter

The decisions of Sonoma County’s elected leaders and those running county government departments impact people’s lives in real, direct ways. Your local leaders are responsible for managing the county’s finances, advocating for support at the state and federal levels, adopting policies on public health, housing and business — to name a few — and leading emergency response and recovery.
As The Press Democrat’s county government and politics reporter, my job is to spotlight their work and track the outcomes.

Ethan Varian

Housing and homelessness, The Press Democrat 

I've lived in California for most of my life, and it's hard for me to remember when the state hasn't been in a housing crisis. Here in Sonoma County, sharply rising housing costs and increasing homelessness are reshaping what was long considered the Bay Area’s “affordable” region. As The Press Democrat’s housing and homelessness reporter, I aim to cover how officials, advocates, developers and residents are reacting to and experiencing the ongoing crisis.

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